"Why must we suffer?"

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Episode 29 -- July 23, 2020

How Recovery Prepares Us to Reframe Pain and Suffering

The Serenity Prayer teaches us to accept the things we cannot change. One of those basic things we cannot change is that, sometimes, we suffer. Right now, with COVID-19 in our midst, we are suffering. We are mourning. We are wondering so much. We are ever aware of how fragile life can be. But, in other ways and to lesser degrees, we are in pain having lost jobs, contact with others, and security. We can accept that we cannot change suffering, but how do we cope with it? How can we lessen it?

Beverly Conyers, in Find Your Light: Practicing Mindfulness to Recover from Anything, puts suffering into perspective and reaches into philosophical and religious teachings to be able to reframe it for us. We might make things worse for our suffering, we might make things better. It's not a glib "Suffering makes you a better person!" type dismissal, but it's more of a reminder that we, as people in recovery, have learned the most important lessons because of our suffering.

This excerpt is from Find Your Light by Beverly Conyers and has been edited for brevity.

There's a well-known story of a young mother whose only son fell ill and died when he was one year old. Distraught with grief, the woman carried her dead son to the Buddha and begged him to give her medicine to revive the child. The Buddha told the mother to go to every house in the village and gather a few mustard seeds from any family that had never known suffering. He promised to make the medicine from the seeds when she returned.

The desperate mother knocked on every door in the village in search of a family that had never known suffering, but she could not find one. In time, she discovered what the Buddha had wanted her to learn for herself--that suffering is part of life. It comes to everyone. With that new understanding, she was gradually able to accept and mourn her loss.

The woman learned an important lesson that we all learn sooner or later: life is a mixture of fortune and loss, of joy and sorrow. But beneath this basic truth lies a perplexing question: Why must we suffer?

It's a question as old as humanity itself.

It leads us to also ask: Why Is There So Much Suffering?

We humans are unique in the animal kingdom (as far as we know) in that we have self-awareness. Look at a dog or a parrot or a squirrel, and you'll see a creature that doesn't give two hoots about its appearance or its accomplishments or the meaning of life. Most animals, if left to their own devices, are blessed with the ability to simply be. Like Adam and Eve before the fall, they have a childlike innocence of sin or pretense or loss or death.

Our more complicated brain gives us a higher level of consciousness, which allows us to conceptualize not only our own existence but also the past, the future, and the boundless universe. We are, in a very real sense, privileged witnesses to the vast cosmic mystery.

In another sense, though, we humans carry a unique burden. Alone among the animals (again, as far as we know), we are aware that we and everyone we love will die. In almost every culture throughout history, that knowledge has inspired spiritual beliefs, practices, and rituals designed to ease the pain of our own mortality.

But death, while perhaps our primal sorrow, is far from being our only sorrow.

So, I suggest we Find Meaning in Pain.

The year I turned forty, my husband of twenty-two years left me for an eighteen-year-old girl. She was a high school classmate of my two older children, and he was her teacher. I was beyond devastated. I didn't think I'd survive. For months I felt as if I couldn't breathe. I wept on the way to and from work and again at night when the kids were asleep. I felt lost and disoriented, like I'd stumbled into a terrifying, hostile country. I simply didn't know how to live without him. There was no "me," there had only been "us," and now that was gone.

Today, more than twenty years later, thinking about that chapter of my life can still make me sad. Sometimes I even cry a little. But mostly, I think about how that experience set me on a long and difficult path to recovering me, the self I had lost almost without noticing. Like many people, I gradually saw that intense suffering can sometimes light the way toward personal growth.

Suffering is something we instinctively wish to avoid. When difficult emotions bubble up or when we experience physical pain, we automatically look for something to distract or soothe us. Freud called this response the "pleasure principle," theorizing that we all seek to attain pleasure and avoid pain. Yet most of us have willingly suffered at one point or another in pursuit of an important goal. Athletes put themselves through grueling workouts to improve their performance. Women endure the pain of childbirth to bring new life into the world. And anyone who has gone through withdrawal knows that prolonged suffering is sometimes a necessary step toward a better life.

When we suffer for a purpose, we find meaning in our pain, making it easier to bear. But what about suffering we don't choose? What about losing a loved one or being diagnosed with a serious illness or living each day with soul-numbing depression? How do we find meaning in those crushing experiences?

Philosophers and spiritual leaders have had much to say on the topic. Most have concurred with Aristotle's assertion that "learning is not child's play; we cannot learn without pain." In the Bible's book of Romans, we read, "[W]e also glory in our sufferings because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope." The Dalai Lama wrote, "It is under the greatest adversity that there exists the greatest potential for doing good, both for oneself and others."

And the eighth-century Buddhist monk Shantideva taught that suffering can lead to wisdom in three important ways: First, suffering can chase out arrogance and replace it with humility, which opens our mind to life's deeper lessons. Second, it can expand our compassion for others who suffer, deepening our understanding of the human condition. And third, it can inspire us to lead a virtuous life. After all, when we obey laws, live with integrity, and treat others with respect, we reduce the suffering caused by our own unskillful behaviors.

The underlying message is not that we should try to suffer more so we can become better people. The message is that we can learn important lessons from suffering--when we are ready and if we are willing to listen.

Many years ago, I became friendly with a woman who was suffering from major depression. Getting through each day was an ordeal, and life seemed utterly meaningless to her. I discovered that she had lost her nursing license a few years earlier because of drug use. There were steps she could take to get it back, but they involved two or three years of drug testing, which meant she'd have to stop smoking marijuana.

"Pot's the only thing that helps me through the day," she moaned. "It's the one pleasure I have left." On the other hand, she knew in her heart that she was born to be a nurse. That was her true calling. She wrestled with the problem for a long time, trying to figure out which was worse--the deprivation of giving up pot, or the sadness of missing her calling. Finally, she realized that her depression was telling her to get her nursing license back. Today, she's a practicing nurse, and while she still has bouts of depression, she's generally content with her life because it once again has purpose and meaning.

Her story is not unusual. Many of us stay in unhappy situations because we're afraid of what we'll suffer if we try to change. But fear of suffering can in itself become a source of pain, depriving us of the ability to live fully. As the Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote, "Indeed, the truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer."

It may seem paradoxical, but accepting pain as an inevitable part of life is perhaps the best way to reduce our suffering. With acceptance, we begin to open our heart to lessons we have yet to learn.

Let's take a moment here for a REFLECTION.
Think about this: "Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life's search for love and wisdom." These words from the thirteenth-century Persian poet Rumi remind us that there are lessons to be learned from suffering. What can your suffering teach you?

You can read more about mindfulness in recovery in Find Your Light by Beverly Conyers.

About the Author
Author Beverly Conyers--one of the most respected voices in wellness and recovery--has guided hundreds of thousands of readers through the process of recognizing family roles in addiction, healing shame, building healthy relationships, releasing trauma, focusing on emotional sobriety, as well as acknowledging self-sabotaging behaviors, addictive tendencies, and substance use patterns. With her newest work, Conyers shows us how the practice of mindfulness can be a game-changing part of recovering from any- and everything. She is the author of Find Your Light: Practicing Mindfulness to Recover from Anything (Nov. 2019), and the upcoming Follow Your Light: A Guided Journal to Recover from Anything (Aug. 2020) as well as Addict in the Family: Stories of Loss, Hope, and Recovery (2003), Everything Changes: Help for Families of Newly Recovering Addicts (2009), The Recovering Heart: Emotional Sobriety for Women (2013).

© 2019 by Beverly Conyers
All rights reserved